Reflections on TST’s Israel Experience

Posted on November 22, 2019

As I reflect on a wonderful ten days in Israel, I feel like I was able to check off all of the major and required Israel experiences.

I walked around various markets where stall holders tried to entice me into their stores calling out to me and offering me a “good price”, starting to negotiate with me before I had even expressed any interest in purchasing anything that they were selling.

I made my way around the Old City of Jerusalem almost carried along by a wave of people without room to extend my arms or even my legs for that matter, all of us seeming to be magnetically drawn towards the next destination on our tour.

And as always seems to be the case in Israel I ate my way around the country. We went on food tours in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, twice, we experienced home hospitality in a Druze village and Modiin, and the breakfasts at the hotel each morning provided my regular daily total caloric intake in just a single sitting.

It was a phenomenal trip with a wonderful group of people. While many of the sites were places that I had been before, visiting them with this special group of friends from our community allowed me to see them anew. From the moment that the plane arrived in Ben Gurion airport, with applause for the El Al pilot, as if to say either we’re still impressed that a Jewish boy or girl was able to fly a plane across the world, or we are simply delighted to finally arrive in our homeland, there is something special about being in Israel.

On that first Friday even though we were in Tel Aviv, a city that really doesn’t sleep, even on Shabbat, you could feel something special in the air. And wherever we went people didn’t simply say hello, but we were greeted with Shabbat Shalom by virtually everyone. One of the powerful things about being in Israel is being in a place that runs on Jewish time – not in terms of being late for everything, but in the rhythm of the days, weeks and years that follow our Jewish calendar – sufganiyot, doughnuts, were already out in the bakeries in preparation for Chanukah.

And while there is so much to celebrate in the reality of Israel today, there are also challenges. On Tuesday morning as we were waking up on Kibbut HaGoshrin, on the Golan Heights, in the far north of the country, we were hearing reports of rocket fire in the south. During the night Israeli security forces had killed a senior leader of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. Baha Abu al-Ata had been responsible for several rocket launches against Israel and was feared to be preparing another attack. In response Islamic Jihad began firing rockets into Israel.

That morning with concern about the Palestinian response the entire south of the country as far as Tel Aviv went on a lockdown. For the first time since the 1991 Gulf War, the Home Front command in Israel ordered the closure of schools in an area that included about one million children. We had been in Tel Aviv only two days earlier, walking around the city, freely enjoying the sights and sounds of one of the most vibrant cities in the world. On that Tuesday the city was closed, and children were kept home from school.

Here, in New England, we are at the time of year when we are beginning to check the weather reports for fear of school closures caused by snow. And on those days when school is closed our children wake up, look out the window at the beautiful white blanket on the ground and they know that they have a day off school, a day to enjoy the snow and hot chocolate in front of the fire. But imagine waking up and having to tell your children that they can’t go to school because rockets are being fired at them and the local authorities are scared for their safety – what must that experience be like?

And while this was the first time in almost 30 years for the city of Tel Aviv, the closure of schools and the threat of rockets is a far more regular experience for those Israeli communities around the Gaza border.

Being so far away from Gaza, the 190 rockets that were eventually fired into Israel did not affect our itinerary. But on the bus that morning Doron, our tour guide, did tell us that, as unlikely as it was, if the sirens went off we would need to find the nearest bomb shelter or if there wasn’t to simply lie on the ground with our hands over our heads, doing what is know as “duck and cover”. How strange to be on a vacation, touring around this most beautiful country and to be told that you may need to run to a bomb shelter.

But this is Israel. In the Hebrew song Al Kol Eleh, it begins Al hadvash ve’al ha’okets, al hamar vehamatok, al biteynu hatinoket shmor eyli hatov – every bee that brings the honey needs a sting to be complete and we all must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet. Israel is that sweet and that sting.

Perhaps the most acute example of this bitter and sweet combination came exactly a week ago when we visited Kehillat Yozma in the city of Modiin. I have been a Rabbi now for ten years and I thought that I had participated in every lifecycle event that there could be in a synagogue service, I’ve blessed babies, as we did tonight, I’ve participated in Bnei Mitzvah, I’ve welcomed those who have adopted Judaism as their own, and I’ve blessed wedding couples. But on Friday night at Yozma there was a new lifecycle event, in which I had not previously participated. 18-year-old Kinneret Kahan was called up to be given a blessing on the eve of her induction into the IDF. The additional lifecycle event for an Israeli synagogue community is to offer a blessing for their young people before entering the army.

Rather than share my reflections of that moment, our member Jeff Maimon wrote of the experience: “I watched the faces of her parents, as they stood on either side of their young daughter while she received the blessing over induction into military service. It is a hard to describe the combination of pride and concern showing on their faces. But looking around the room at my fellow TST group members, the raw emotion of the moment was evident. I suspect others were thinking what I was – how would I feel had either of my own children decided to pursue military service? I recalled that the biggest worry I had when my boys were Kinneret’s age was whether they would find a good college to attend where they would thrive. Yet here I was, observing this unique blessing being bestowed, as it had undoubtedly routinely been done many times before.” I think that Jeff speaks for many of us in his reflections on this experience.

Israel is that unique place that combines conflicting emotions and experiences in a single instant. It is ancient and modern, it is religious and secular, it is Middle Eastern and Westernized, it is simple and complex. It is a place where you feel the hope and the fear, you feel it is home and completely foreign, it is a place where parents feel pride and concern. As I watched Kinneret receive her blessing I was grateful and fearful, filled with awe and trepidation, I was aware of how for us this was a unique moment and for them it was a regular experience. From a distance this Shabbat, I want to conclude by offering Kinneret that blessing again, so that we envelope her in our prayers from here in Wayland.

May God who blessed our foremothers Eve and Na’ama, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, Yael, Yehudit and Devora, bless Kinneret Sarah daughter of Miriam and Mendel Kahan on the eve of her induction as a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.

May God grant her the strength to serve her country and her people and to give of herself to the best of her ability to protect them and keep them safe. And may God grant her the resolve to remain true to her values in challenging times when they will be tested.

May God protect her from all danger and strife so that she may safely return to the welcoming arms of her family and friends, and may she continue to grow and develop as a person, as a Jew and as a citizen of Israel.

And may we all say “Amen”.

And as they said to Kinneret, our dearest hope is that the only war that you will take part in will be the war for peace.